WVU football: For Mountaineers, more issues than fixes
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- A losing streak the likes of which West Virginia's football program has not seen in 11 years has produced more questions than the Mountaineers have been able to answer.
That is perhaps the biggest problem in a season suddenly gone so very wrong.
Problems have appeared faster than solutions and the issues have accumulated to present obstacles not even a team that was in the top five a month ago could clear. Now it's the Mountaineers asking questions.
"You got some ideas?" Coach Dana Holgorsen said Saturday after a 55-34 loss at Oklahoma State gave WVU the program's first four-game losing streak since 2001. "I'm all ears."
West Virginia (5-4, 2-4 Big 12) is running out of fixes, which is not ideal with No. 13 Oklahoma coming to Mountaineer Field for Saturday's 7 p.m. game. Fox will televise the game as the Sooners (7-2, 5-1) seek to give the Mountaineers their longest losing streak since six straight in 1986.
How did this happen?
"At some times, effort was questioned," said West Virginia receiver Stedman Bailey, who was at the very least questioned by his coaches after hurting his left ankle in last month's loss to Texas Tech and then not returning soon enough. "We watch film and see guys slacking, including myself, and that's something we can fix. Effort is something you can't coach. Effort is in the player."
The histrionics are WVU's concern right now. History is not.
After trying different tactics and lineups and spending more than a month trying simply to get a win, the team wonders what happens next.
That's where things are for the Mountaineers, who feel they have tried so many things and seem as surprised as anyone that they haven't worked.
"Sometimes I look at the game from the sideline and see things happen and question it, like, "Come on, man,'" Bailey said. "That's what makes me question effort sometimes.
"Sometimes our demeanor, when I look from the sideline, sometimes I see things and it's just crazy. Some of the plays that have been happening this year have been unbelievable."
Holgorsen was perhaps most offended by the simple errors that cost his team against TCU. Those errors came after two weeks of practice, one of which was devoted to fundamentals. He pointed out WVU dropped nine passes in the game and could offer no explanation. The attention shifted to finding 11 players at a time who valued the opportunity to play and could be trusted to handle the responsibility.
The result was arguably the sloppiest performance in Holgorsen's 22 games. He labeled his team's errors on offense, defense and especially special teams "junior high mistakes" and said there were some things he couldn't fix with coaching.
"We coached hard. Our guys coached hard on the sideline and the guys were determined," Holgorsen said. "We should have been up at halftime, but we just gave them 10 points (on special teams). You can't give people 10 points. That's just obviously inexcusable. We came in at halftime down 17 and felt like we should have been winning, but we went out determined to make a run in the third quarter and we just made simple, stupid mistakes to get us beat."
Quarterback Geno Smith and running back Andrew Buie botched one handoff and ran into one another on a second. Shawne Alston went nowhere on a fourth-and-goal gamble at the 2-yard line, when the defense rallied to the ball and overwhelmed the blocking.
Receivers fell running routes. Offensive linemen derailed drives with penalties. Defenders left receivers uncovered. The special teams allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown, turned the ball over just trying to field a punt and a kickoff and stood and watched as a punt hit inside the 5 and rolled into the end zone.
"I am surprised, honestly," Smith said. "I do think it is junior high stuff. You pick the game up as a kid and if you make those mistakes in Little League, the coach will chew you out. It's eerie in a sense to do things like that, especially in a crucial situation coming off a (three)-game losing streak that's now (four) games.
"We're not doing a good enough job managing each down and I don't think it means that much to every one of us as it does to some of us."
Holgorsen and his assistants have tried to control the actions of the team by changing actors. Walk-on cornerback Cecil Level started a second straight game in place of junior Darwin Cook. Ryan Nehlen and Connor Arlia - walk-ons who got the latest chance at outside and inside receiver, respectively - saw the most playing time of their careers
Nehlen caught four passes for 26 yards and his second career touchdown to start a third-quarter rally. Arlia caught three passes for 25 yards. One was an acrobatic 12-yard reception on third-and-11 on a field goal drive in the third quarter. It was the sort of play that had been missing from the offense - and which still was with Smith overthrowing receivers and receivers flailing at passes in the midst of routes.
"Those are the types of guys who have been watching on the sidelines a lot and they want to get in there and they go out there with nothing to lose and they go full-speed, 100-percent on every play and they don't want to go back to the bench," right guard Jeff Braun said. "Guys have come in who haven't seen a lot of reps and are getting reps and want to make sure they take advantage of it."
Even without great depth and while stuck in a slump that requires the best efforts from his best players, Holgorsen said playing time will continue to go to those who show they deserve it and be taken from those who have taken it for granted.
"Much like what we did on defense a couple weeks ago, we're looking for bodies that play with a tremendous amount of effort and guys that it means a lot to," Holgorsen said. "We'll continue to look for guys that bring that effort and energy and get out there and play hard because playing the game of football means a lot to them."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-11523. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.